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Research Highlights

Research Highlights
Lunasin may fight cancer

By Kentucky Soybean Board

Sadly, cancer has affected the vast majority of our popula­tion. If you haven’t had cancer yourself, chances are high that a friend or relative has. So it’s no surprise that when the farmer-leaders of the Kentucky Soybean Board were present­ed with a scientific research project that proposed that Lunasin – a peptide found in the “white flake” generated during the processing of beans for oil – could be an effective weapon in the war on can­cer, they voted to fund it. At the end of fifth and final year of this groundbreaking study into the possibilities of using a soy-derived protein in the battle against cancer, Dr. Keith Davis, previously at the University of Louisville, believes that his team has made major strides in moving the development of the Lunasin as both a chemo-prevention agent to prevent cancer and as a therapeutic to treat cancer.

When the study began in 2010, the project goal was simple: to investigate the health benefits of Lunasin in the prevention and treatment of cancer. The objectives of the initial research proj­ect were to develop a method for the purification of Lunasin from soybean white flake, complete in vitro studies using mammali­an cell lines to verify that Lunasin is a cancer chemo-prevention agent, and to identify specific cancer cell types that are sensitive to Lunasin treatment. An additional objective was included to determine if modified forms of Lunasin could be produced using a tobacco-based expression system. These initial studies were quite successful and a commercial-scale method for producing highly purified Lunasin was developed. A patent application based on key steps of this purification process is currently pending. This meth­od, in collaboration with Kentucky BioProcessing in Owensboro, was used to generate sufficient amounts of Lunasin to conduct de­tailed studies of Lunasin’s effects. These studies confirmed that Lunasin could prevent the transformation of cells by the chemical carcinogens cadmium and the tobacco carcinogen NNK and that Lunasin could indeed prevent the growth on non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) cells. It was also found that the tobacco-based expression system could be used to produce modified forms of Lunasin, and that these modified forms can be more active than natural Lunasin against specific cancer cell types.

These positive results triggered additional funding and the development of a partnership between the Davis laboratory, the Kentucky Soybean Board, and Owensboro Grain Company to further the development of Lunasin for use in nutriceutical and pharmaceutical products.

Over the next four years, the Davis laboratory was able to demonstrate that Lunasin could inhibit the growth of NSCLC and melanoma cancer cells in cell culture and in mouse models of tumor growth. More recent studies have demonstrated that Lunasin also can inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells in cell culture. Thus, the evidence is mounting that Lunasin may be ef­fective against a number of life-threatening cancers. During this time, the Davis laboratory also completed a detailed analysis of the mechanism of action of Lunasin to try and understand the molecular basis of Lunasin’s ability to inhibit cancer cell growth. As anticipated from previous research in other laboratories, it was found that Lunasin can modulate histone acetylation and change gene expression patterns in treated cells. However, the Davis lab­oratory also discovered that Lunasin also acts by inhibiting the activation of integrin signaling, a critical cell signaling pathway known to be important for cancer cell growth and metastasis. Tak­en together, these studies have greatly extended our knowledge on how Lunasin works to inhibit cancer cell growth and provide a strong rational for the further development of Lunasin-based cancer treatments.

An increasing number of laboratories are now working on Luna­sin and its potential use to improve human health is being recog­nized more broadly. Recent studies by a collaborator of Dr. Davis, Dr. Hua-Chen Chang at IUPU, suggest that Lunasin activates innate immunity against lymphoma, demonstrating that Lunasin also has effects on the immune system. Given the diversity of cancers that respond to Lunasin and the multiple modes of action that Lunasin appears to utilize to inhibit cancer growth, Lunasin may be useful in the clinic for a number of indications. Thus, significant progress has been made towards realizing our ultimate goal of developing Lunasin-based cancer prevention products for the nutriceutical and pharmaceutical markets. Dr. Davis emphasizes that his lab­oratory’s work on Lunasin would not have been possible without the support of the Kentucky Soybean Board and the subsequent partnership that included Owensboro Grain Company.

“This project really would not have gotten off the ground with­out Board funding,” Davis said. “It was very forward-thinking of the Board to take this on and I really appreciate it.”

Dr. Davis’s laboratory is now located at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he also serves as the Director for the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship in Biotechnology. The Lunasin work continues with further support from Owensboro Grain Company and the first Lunasin-based nutriceutical products are in develop­ment.